With Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the Green Bay Packers appear set at safety. However, could one of the bigger safeties interest them in a hybrid safety-linebacker role capable of contributing on passing downs?
Here are our top five safeties. The players who might be considered the top three safeties in this draft are not listed here. We consider Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey a cornerback and USC’s Su’a Cravens a linebacker. Plus, West Virginia’s Karl Joseph checked in at 5-foot-9 5/8 at the Scouting Combine — far too short for the Packers’ historical preferences.
Stats are from STATS via Real Football, though the statistical comparisons and missed-tackle rates were produced by Packer Report. Some of the scouting opinions come courtesy of longtime NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas.
VONN BELL, Ohio State
Position rank: 1
Height: 5-foot-10 3/4. Weight: 199. 40: 4.53. Vertical: 30.5. 20 shuttle: DNP.
Notes: Bell played in 42 games during his three seasons. In 2015, he ranked fifth on the team with 61 tackles and led Ohio State with 11 passes defensed — two interceptions and nine breakups — to earn first-team All-America honors. According to STATS, he ranked second in the draft class with a completion rate allowed of 39.7 percent (23-of-58) and the 11 passes defensed. He did give up one touchdown. On passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield, he allowed 2-of-6 passing. He wasn’t much of a factor in the run game, with just one disruption. He missed 10 tackles, giving him a rate of 6.1 tackles per miss — 14th of our top 30 safeties with complete statistical data. In 2014, he was an all-Big Ten selection with 92 tackles and six interceptions. Two of those came against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and Alabama in a national semifinal. He finished his career with nine interceptions.
Scouting: While he’s never going to excel as an in-the-box enforcer, this is the NFL and playing pass defense is paramount. That is Bell’s game, with an ability to play man-to-man coverage and a knack for the game that goes beyond his slightly above-average athleticism. “A little undersized — under 5-11 — but I think he has the ability, like Damarious Randall and Jimmie Ward, to be able to drop down and cover in the slot,” said NFL Network analyst and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah. “He has that athletic ability and versatility. Wish he was a little more consistent tackling between the tackles. He's really good to the alley, but in between the tackle he's a little hesitant there.” He might be hesitant but he generally gets the job done, relying on form rather than hitting ability to make plays vs. the run. “Sometimes you get lazy,” Bell said at the Combine, “but as I’ve seen on film, sitting down with some scouts, they was tearing me up a little bit. It’s something to fix, it’s not hard to fix. Just got to run to the ball a little harder.” He’s done a bit of everything at Ohio State, including both safety positions as well as slot cornerback, plus man and zone. “He doesn’t make me excited,” a scout said, “but none of these guys do. Sort of a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none kind of guy. I doubt he’ll be a star but I doubt he’ll bust.”
Personally: Bell’s first experience in football didn’t go well. Said Bell, who grew up Chattanooga, Tenn.: “Going into sixth grade I went out for football, and after the first day I quit,. I was like ‘Man, it’s too hot. I don’t feel like running.’ I mean it was hot. And I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I’ve got time for this.’" His first love was swimming, then basketball. Now, he’s got a chance to be the first safety selected. “You get the full package,” Bell said, “a playmaker, a guy who can tackle in the open field, a guy who can make plays, a guy who just holds the whole the team together, you’re going to get a leader, you’ve got another coach on the field.”
KEANU NEAL, Florida
Position rank: 2
Height: 6-foot 1/2. Weight: 211. 40: 4.62. Vertical: 38. 20 shuttle: 4.38.
Notes: Despite missing the first two games of the season with a hamstring injury, Neal had 89 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble. According to STATS, he allowed a completion rate of 70 percent (14-of-20) but 0-for-3 on deep passes and no touchdowns. He’s at home in the box, though he ranked just 17th out of our top 30 with a missed tackle rate of 5.9 (15 misses). He added six run disruptions. Neal intercepted four passes in three seasons.
Scouting: Neal was the only safety in this class to allow less than 10 yards per completion, showing an excellent ability to limit run-after-catch yardage. The missed-tackle rate is too high but should be rectified if he plays a bit more under control rather than looking for the big hit. Said Thomas: “He has that thick linebacker-like frame that could see him play some Cover-2 at the second level, thanks to his great playing strength and explosive closing speed. Some scouts even call him a safety playing linebacker and feel he can interchange at both safety spots, along with handling Rover, hybrid-type duties, as he offers good scheme versatility in the back-seven. He has the quickness, agility and speed needed in the slot to more than handle any NFL No. 3 receiver. He reminds me a lot of Ryan Clark (ex-Pittsburgh) for his ability to quickly locate the receiver and stay on the hip of his man throughout the route. He has very quick feet to match up with almost any opponent and looks very natural turning and running to the ball. Neal is quick to react and come up into the box in run support. He demonstrates very good leverage along with proper hand usage to avoid and shed blocks trying to impact the backfield. The thing I like most about his run support skills is that he shows no hesitation in ‘sticking his face into the fire,’ as he is a smart, tough player who simply will not back down when challenged by offensive linemen.”
Personally: Neal’s brother, Clinton Hart, was drafted by the Angles in 2000 but decided to focus on baseball. He played two years of arena football and one season in NFL Europe before getting a chance with the Eagles. He parlayed that into a seven-year NFL career that included 10 interceptions. Hart used to call Neal “Cotton Candy.” Not anymore. He’s the top all-around safety in this draft.
JEREMY CASH, Duke
Position rank: 3
Height: 6-foot 3/8. Weight: 212. 40: DNP. Vertical: DNP. 20 shuttle: DNP.
Notes: Cash was a unanimous first-team All-American as a senior — just the sixth player in Duke history — and a finalist for the Bronco Nagurski Award (National Defensive Player of the Year) and Jim Thorpe Award (top defensive back in the nation). Basically living in the box during his 12 games, he had 98 tackles and four passes broken up. While some safeties are measured by interceptions — Cash didn’t have any — Cash’s impact is felt around the ball with a staggering 18 tackles for losses, which led the nation’s defensive backs. He added three forced fumbles as he was named the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year. Only one safety in this draft could beat Cash’s missed-tackle rate of 14.0 (98 tackles, seven misses). In the passing game, Cash allowed 66 percent completions (19-of-28) with two touchdowns, but just 1-of-5 on deep passes. In 39 career games for Duke, Cash compiled 333 tackles, 38.0 tackles for losses, eight sacks, six interceptions, nine forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, 15 pass breakups and 15 quarterback pressures.
Scouting: Cash could fit as an undersized linebacker — a role like former first-round safety Deone Bucannon plays for Washington State and a role that could interest the Packers as they try to replace Clay Matthews on the inside. “A lot of people say they will play to my skill-set, understanding that I'm a versatile player whether it be playing in a nickel corner role or as a linebacker blitzing off the edge,” Cash said at the Combine. “They understand that I'm not defined by one specific role, so to speak.” According to STATS, Cash had an eye-popping 39 run disruptions and 19 quarterback pressures. Of our top 10 safeties, the other nine combined for 71 run disruptions and 24 pressures. “Cash has a well-proportioned frame with room to even add at least another 10 pounds of bulk, if a team might consider utilizing him in certain situations as a linebacker, as he draws favorable comparisons to the Panthers’ Thomas Davis,” Thomas said. “He has that thick and defined upper-body muscle tone you look for in a player asked to step up in the box to make plays vs. the run often. When asked to line up on the slot receiver, he stays tight on the opponent’s hip. He also shows excellent hip flexibility and timed speed to be effective covering on deep routes. He has good feet to adjust on the move, along with equal ability when playing the zone or in isolated situations. You can see on film that he has more than enough speed to close on the ball and run with backs and slot receivers when they challenge in the soft areas on the field.”
Personally: Cash topped 100 tackles in each of his three seasons after transferring from Ohio State amid coach Jim Tressel’s dismissal. How did he get there? By bus. He didn’t know much about Duke, other than its athletic excellence and football struggles. Three All-America seasons later, he’s taking a master’s degree to the NFL. “I was going into really an unfamiliar situation, but that's not really a bad thing. Going to a place like Duke, I had a chance alongside my other teammates to make history and we did just that. Coach (David Cutcliffe) always preaches to make a place better than you found it, and I think by the time I graduated I did just that. ... My philosophy on life is that life has no remote control, you have to get up and change it yourself. I didn't too much like the circumstances I was in, so I changed them.”
JALEN MILLS, LSU
Position rank: 4
Height: 6-foot. Weight: 191. 40: 4.61. Vertical: 37. 20 shuttle: 4.00.
Notes: How good is Mills? Even though he missed the start of the season with a broken fibula and played in only seven games with a permanent steel plate, he was voted a first-team All-American by CBSSports.com. Playing mostly at slot cornerback, Mills recorded 30 tackles, one sack and three passes broken up. He gave up 52 percent completions (17-of-52) but just 1-of-8 on deep passes. He wasn’t much of a factor in the run game (one run disruption) or as a blitzer (one pressure), and only six safeties were worse than his missed-tackle rate of 5.0 (30 tackles, six misses). Mills was a four-year starter at corner, slot and safety. He earned Freshman All-America honors at cornerback in 2012. Mills picked off three passes as a sophomore and one as a junior.
Scouting: Versatility and coverage is paramount in today’s NFL, which is why Mills is such an intriguing prospect. With cornerback experience, defensive coordinators can feel good about Mills’ ability if matched one-on-one. He reminded scouts of that ability at the Senior Bowl, though his 40 time likely means he can’t be a corner in the NFL — though he said that would be his position of choice. “Mills is a very smart and instinctive player, one that shows no hesitation in recognizing routes and has that great feel to anticipate the ball in flight,” Thomas said. “Mills has very good hip and upper-body flexibility, as he can turn and run on the ball without taking extra steps. He has the functional quickness to mirror receivers in the short-to-intermediate area, but he might not have that second gear to run stride for stride with speedy receivers on deep patterns, thus making him a better fit as a safety. Mills might not be the biggest guy on the field, but he does bring force behind his hits. He is a solid collision-type tackler who also has the ability to keep his hands inside his frame to wrap and secure rather than grab or take arm swipes.”
Personally: At the Senior Bowl and Scouting Combine, scouts wanted to hear about Mills’ health and his 2014 arrest. “I'm pretty sure they already know the situation, they just want to hear it from me,” he said at the Combine. “But that incident was resolved way last year. I don't have any charges pending against me. I never got convicted of anything. It was just a process I had to go through."
T.J. GREEN, Clemson
Position rank: 5
Height: 6-foot-2 1/2. Weight: 209. 40: 4.34. Vertical: 35.5. 20 shuttle: 4.41.
Notes: Green was a starting safety for just one season and has only two years of experience at the position. He played wide receiver in 2013, catching two passes, before being moved to safety for the 2014 season. In 2014, he had 24 tackles and one interception in a reserve role and contributed a 21.2-yard average on kickoff returns. In 2015, he finished second on the team with 93 tackles (a team-high 67 solos) and added one sack, 5.5 tackles for losses. He didn’t intercept a pass but broke up three and forced two fumbles. According to STATS, he allowed 54 percent completions (22-of-41) and a top-30-worst 50 percent (4-of-8) on deep passes. He missed 15 tackles — tied with Neal for fourth-most among our top 30 — but his high tackle count gave him a manageable tackle-miss ratio of 6.2. Only Cash had more run disruptions than Green’s 17.
Scouting: Green is far and away the boom-bust prospect at this position. He didn’t play like a top safety but look at his size and athleticism. Plus, he’s so new to the position that he’s not close to being a finished product. That combination gives him off-the-charts upside. “If I don’t need him to play right now, he’s my guy,” a scout said. “Right now, he’s a special-teams stud. In a few years, he could be a star on defense.” Or, maybe not. “With that said, he could bust, too.” Clemson used his size and athletic ability to its advantage, putting Green in attack mode. The coverage numbers, however, suggest he’ll be a work in progress. According to STATS, he gave up the second-most yards among our top 30 safeties and an unsightly 19.9 yards per completion. By contrast, Bell allowed 14.0, Neal 9.8, Cash 14.2 and Mills 13.6. Obviously, a safety who struggles in coverage and make immediate tackles to limit run-after-catch yardage is a train wreck waiting to happen. With experience — which scouts wish he would have gained by staying in school — can Green become an asset?
Personally: Green was a two-star recruit coming out of high school in Sylacauga, Ala. The only scholarship offers he received from Power Five conference schools were from Clemson and Auburn, which was his favorite team as a kid.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.